Widows of the Workers: Waiting for the Dust to Settle
I am raising funds for a documentary about widows of asbestos.
While there are many of these widows, the film will focus on those who have lost their lives to occupational cancer at General Electric in Peterborough.
Sandy LeBeau is one of these widows.
“My girls were 15 and 17 when they lost their dad and five years before that, they sat at the table for supper when he said the chemicals will kill him,” explains Sandy LeBeau.
Her husband, Ron LeBeau, worked at the General Electric plant in Peterborough, Ontario for 20 years. Along with many other employees in the plant, Ron was exposed to various hazardous, degenerative and lethal chemicals, for example, asbestos. He had that discussion with his daughters and wife right after he read the WHMIS report in the 1980s which revealed the potentially lethal effect of the many chemicals he worked with at GE.
Over the years, Ron LeBeau watched as his coworkers passed away as a result of cancer or other acute illnesses – many of whom were under 50.
Ron LeBeau’s brother-in-law was diagnosed with asbestosis after working in a manufacturing plant up North. Ron LeBeau's sister told Ron to ‘get out of there,’ but Sandy says, “I think by the time he had put 15 years in it, like what damage is done, is done. You have a family. Between the wage and the benefits, you know, with children, that makes a difference."
Ron died of stomach cancer within three months of being diagnosed at the age of 39.
It has been 20 years since Sandy LeBeau filed for compensation on her husband's behalf and she has not received a cent.
Sandy was one of the 700 workers and widows who showed up at an occupational health intake clinic in Peterborough to investigate whether or not their cancer or husband's cancer was due to asbestos and other chemical exposure. To date, of those 700 workers, 230 workers filed for compensation and only 107 of these workers have received it.
For my Master’s thesis at McMaster University, I interviewed many workers, widows of the workers and others within the scientific, labour and medical communities. Of the interviews, some of the most deafening interviews were the widows of the workers whose houses were hushed with the loss of their husbands.
Since their husbands have been silenced by occupational cancer, they are the ones left to tell the details of the asbestos-ridden clothing their husband would come home in, how their husband always had a "varnish all over his body" you could smell even after he had showered, how their husband's shoes were tainted blue from the chemicals and white from the asbestos.
Like Sandy LeBeau, the widows are also the ones who can speak to the history of the “Electric City” as Peterborough was coined in its manufacturing glory and the dynamics of spending their whole lives in a town whose industry both kept the city going, and made the people sick.
They could also tell you that the GE property is now a ghost town where from employing around 6000 workers in the 60s and 70s, the plant now runs on a skeleton staff of around 600-1500 workers today.
They are also the ones who, after losing their husbands, have lost their battle with the compensation system or who, after 20 years, have still not received a final response either way.
And yet, their lives have not been overcome with pure grief; they laugh, they cry, they reminisce and they remember. Sandy says she talks about her husband every day.
I want to make sure others are talking about her husband, the workers, the widows, the community and about asbestos by creating this documentary. Asbestos is often seen as a relic of the past and I want to show that this issue is still very much alive and the impact it still has in communities such as Peterborough.
The documentary will talk about the history of what was known as the “magic mineral”, the conflicting dynamics of working for a company that used this dust and yet brought home the daily bread, the head-spinning nature of the compensation system and the metallic odour that was always lingering around the manufacturing plants in Peterborough and staining the houses around it.
I’ll also be interviewing widows who were compensated and workers who are still fighting cancer and compensation at the same time.
It won’t be all sadness, though. I’ve interviewed these people before and their strength, wit and presence is inspirational and I want to share their stories with the world.
Simultaneously, there is a "Ban Asbestos Canada" movement on behalf of labour and other organizations for a comprehensive ban on asbestos and I want to add my voice and the workers' voices to this movement.
Any help that you can give – money, advice, your expertise - to share these stories would truly mean so much.
*The money will be going towards hiring people for audio, filming and editing. I won’t be taking any of the money for myself as I’ll be contributing to the documentary as well and the budget is based off of the bare minimum for starting a small documentary project, based on conversations with people in the film industry.